Fans cheer resumption of live professional sports

Sports-starved public, media prepare for an incoming onslaught of live games

The National Hockey League, which will begin play in Edmonton and Toronto starting August 1, is among major sports leagues resuming games in the coming weeks | Pgiam/Getty

Fans who have been starved for live sports for the past four months will soon be treated to a smorgasbord of games from nearly every major professional league in North America.

And while that feast may overwhelm some people, Vancouver’s sports media personalities are ready for the change of pace from the months of sports talk focused mostly on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on sports instead of on the sports themselves.

“I think we’re starting to get the idea what it will look like,” said Scott Rintoul, host of the Scott Rintoul Show on Sportsnet 650 in Vancouver and Sportsnet 960 in Calgary. “Every single league is going to start – whether or not they can finish is up in the air, and that will be a part of the conversation – and in a market like Vancouver when the Canucks are in the qualifying round and maybe beyond that, it’s pretty evident that is going to be one of the main stories here.”

The National Hockey League (NHL) will begin play in its hub cities of Edmonton and Toronto with five games beginning August 1 and will see either five or six games a day for the first week of the play-in round. The National Basketball Association (NBA) will restart on July 30 with two games, but will then resume the rest of the regular season with as many as six games a day.

Add to that the scheduled start for Major League Baseball (MLB) on July 24 bringing 14 games to the table (just one day after officially launching its 60-game season) and Major League Soccer already in its Orlando, Florida-based tournament that sees two to three games a day, and B.C. sports audiences will not be wanting for choice when all of these seasons get underway. And that’s not counting the scheduled start of the National Football League (NFL) preseason on August 13.

However, the potential for each sport hurting its rival leagues’ TV ratings by launching in the same window is low, said Thomas Drance, senior writer covering the Canucks for the Athletic.

“Overall, when you look at where North America is at, Canadians will watch hockey no matter what,” Drance said. “And the audience overall is eager to have some live content to enjoy, so while there’s a potential of all the leagues cannibalizing each other’s attention, I suspect the audience is not just going to be there for one sport over another, but rather be there for everybody.”

Rintoul agreed, adding that sports journalists and media outlets are equally ready to handle the wave of games – even if the volume will prove cumbersome to handle initially.

“Even though there’s a drinking-through-the-firehose aspect to it, it’s something we are used to at certain points of the year. September-October every year sees the start of the NHL and the NBA, as well as the NFL and CFL [Canadian Football League] being in full swing. And this will be like that, but on hyper-speed, because we just have so many games. But right now, most people I think can rank what the interest level here is going to be, then it just becomes a matter of reacting to what happens.”

Then there’s the elephant in the room – the question of whether the restarts can survive their schedules in their entirety with COVID-19 lurking in the background.

Drance said there is a concern, for instance, about the NHL’s pre-launch training camps taking place in each club’s home city – including teams in hard-hit areas like Florida and Arizona.

But once teams make it safely into their bubbles in Edmonton and Toronto, Drance said there will be far more confidence in the NHL’s ability to complete its season.

“There are enforcement mechanism in place in terms of every team having to send a compliance officer. There are penalties – fines and draft picks – to enforce the guidelines the league and the players have already published.”

Rintoul agreed, but added that there is concern about some sports – such as MLB forgoing a hub model and adopting a regular travel schedule.

“I have a higher level of confidence in some than I do in others; I do have a relatively high degree of confidence when it comes to hockey … because it seems like they were able to get everyone – owners and players – on the same page about what they are and aren’t comfortable with,” he said. “Other sports? We are seeing some opt-outs and outbreaks, and there has to be apprehension in those sports.

But that will not likely dampen the reaction of fans.

“Sports fans are optimistic about sports returning because that’s what they want,” Rintoul said. “They would like to hear about something other than the pandemic or perhaps their own economic situation. And to have that invested interest, people are more excited than they are fearful. We are going to picture the best-case-scenario mentally and hope that scenario plays out.” •